Still More Confusion in the Debate over Retrans & Video Marketplace Deregulation

by on May 15, 2012 · 0 comments

Writing over at the conservative Big Government blog (part of the network of blogs), someone who goes by the pseudonym “Capitol Connection” has posted an editorial about the debate over retransmission consent reform that is full of misinformation and misguided policy prescriptions, at least if you believe is truly limited government. The piece is entitled, “Big Cable Would Prefer if You Paid Their Bills,” and the problems are almost immediately evident from that headline alone.  First, what is a supposedly small government-oriented blog doing using a silly label like “Big Cable” to describe a vigorously competitive sector of our capitalist economy? Using terms like “Big Cable” is a silly lefty tactic. Second, no one in the cable industry is proposing anyone “pay their bills” except for the customers who enjoy their services. Isn’t a fee for service part of capitalism?

Anyway, that’s just the problem with the title of the essay. Sadly, the rest of the piece is filled with even more erroneous information and arguments about the retransmission consent regulatory process as well as the bill that aims to reform that process, “The Next Generation Television Marketplace Act” (H.R. 3675 and S. 2008). That bill, which is sponsored by Senator Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), represents a comprehensive attempt to deregulate America’s heavily regulated video marketplace. In a recent Forbes oped, I argued that the DeMint-Scalise effort would take us “Toward a True Free Market in Television Programming” by eliminating a litany of archaic media regulations that should have never been on the books to begin with. The measure would:

  • eliminate: “retransmission consent” regulations (rules governing contractual negotiations for content);
  • end “must carry” mandates (the requirement that video distributors carry broadcast signals even if they don’t want to);
  • repeal “network non-duplication” and “syndicated exclusivity” regulations (rules that prohibit distributors from striking deals with broadcasters outside their local communities);
  • end various media ownership regulations; and
  • end the compulsory licensing requirements of the Copyright Act of 1976, which essentially forced a “duty to deal” upon content owners to the benefit of video distributors.

This represents genuine and much-needed deregulation of a market that has been encumbered with far too much top-down control and micro-management by the FCC over the past several decades. To be clear, none of these rules apply to any other segment of our modern information economy. Every day of the week, deals are cut between content creators and distributors in many other segments of the media industry without these rules encumbering the process. The DeMint-Scalise bill is an attempt to get big government out of the way and let these deals be cut in a truly free market without regulators putting their thumb on the scale in one direction or the other.

Thus, it came as a bit of a shock to me to see a blog that rails against and is self-titled Big Government suggesting that we should retain a form of big government regulation! Indeed, the author gets the intent of the DeMint-Scalise bill exactly backward. The author says the The Next Generation Television Marketplace Act:

would strip broadcasters of their ability to negotiate in the free marketplace. Some cable operators, it turns out, would love to provide Americans with the quality content American broadcast companies churn out. They just don’t happen to want to pay for it.

The author of the piece also says that cable industry representatives:

are lobbying in Washington for key provisions in legislation that would that would allow the Federal government to intervene in what is otherwise a sound, private sector marketplace that benefits consumers each and every day. And they’re doing so under the guise of “deregulation.”

This is all utter poppycock. While I am sure that the cable industry would love to get all that content free of charge, that’s not what the DeMint-Scalise bill would do. It doesn’t end free-market contracting; it bolsters it. Again, the bill would get the government out of the business of setting rules for how these deals get cut and instead allow these big boys to come to the bargaining table and hammer out these deals on their own.  That is called deregulation and true capitalism!

The author of the misguided Big Government editorial seems to be resting their case on a letter that the American Conservative Union (ACU) sent to members of Congress in late March. I addressed the claims found in that letter in this essay and pointed out that ACU had almost everything exactly backward. Both the ACU letter and the Big Government essay just keep erroneously assuming that the end of the regulatory retrans process means that “broadcasters [will] be forced to simply give away their signals and content.” Again, nothing could be further from the truth. As I noted in my response to the ACU letter:

nothing in this bill forces content creators or broadcasters to deal their content to other distributors. And nothing in the bill gives those other video distributors the right to freely distribute content without the permission of its owners. In sum, the bill does not repeal copyright law — it only repeals the compulsory licensing rules that force content owners to deal their programming against their consent on government regulated terms.  That means copyright is actually strengthened under this bill and that content owners have more bargaining power than they do today. Thus, the ACU is horribly mistaken in asserting that the DeMint-Scalise bill would “allow an uncompensated use of broadcast signals and content.” The exact opposite is the case.

Finally, if nothing else convinces the folks at the Big Government blog and the ACU of the error in their thinking, consider this: The preservation of the current retransmission consent regime and all its corresponding regulations means the preservation and growth of the Federal Communications Commission as a federal regulatory agency overseeing the information economy. Is that a truly free market-oriented position? Do we need federal bureaucrats overseeing free market contractual negotiations in this or any other sector? Because that’s what the law allows today. By contrast, the DeMint-Scalise bill offers us the chance to finally get real deregulation rolling and get FCC downsizing back on track. You will never get a smaller FCC by advocating the retention of regulation.

Thus, I think it’s pretty clear which approach is the most liberty-enhancing. I hope, therefore, that the ACU and the folks at the Big Government blog will reconsider their position.

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